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In the early 1960s, I met some firefighters in a handball league. I liked them; that's why I decided to become a firefighter. I was on the Civil Service list to join the San Francisco Fire Department in 1962, but didn't take the job. In 1965, I got in.

The best part of the job was the people. I made life-long friendships. When I came in, a new firefighter filled in for men who were taking vacations--a vacation relief assignment. You got to work out of a lot of the firehouses, and met almost everyone in the Department. Then you could select a "house" where you wanted to be. That's changed; now when you come into the Department you are assigned to different kinds of equipment so you can learn the equipment, but you don't move around to the different houses.

When you're a firefighter, you live close to your co-workers. You get to know people very well, and you know everything about them. It's like a family, and like a family sometimes people don't get along. After six months, you can transfer to another house or get put on vacation relief assignment. As a firefighter, your life depends on your co-workers--in that way it's even a closer relationship than exists in an extended family.

We have lunch and dinner together. You pay into a kitty in your house for meals. Cooking either rotates so that everyone does it, or is done by volunteers. Some firefighters become pretty good cooks.


As a firefighter, I liked going to work. It wasn't a problem to get out of bed in the morning and go to the job. That was true of most people in the old days. When I first came into the Department, it wasn't because of the pay or benefits. They weren't that great. First it was the people; then it was the work itself.

Dealing with fires is always a challenge. No two incidents are the same. You can go to a fire in a high rise building in the morning and in the afternoon be called to one in a backyard cottage. It's not like being on an assembly-line where you do the same thing over-and-over again for eight hours, and maybe don't even know how what you're doing fits into the whole picture of what's being produced. In firefighting, you never get bored.

Fire fighting is a team effort, and your safety depends on the rest of the team. If someone down on the ground at the side of a truck isn't monitoring the water pressure in the hose, you could get a kick when you opened the nozzle that would throw you out of a building or, if you got hit in the head, you could get knocked out. Because of the risks, you monitor other workers. You learn who's competent and who can just get by.

In fire fighting, you have to trust the decisions of the people who are in command. You don't have time to discuss or debate what's going to be done. I was in a fire in the Bank of America building (in San Francisco) working on the 30th floor; that's a building where none of the windows open. My lieutenant told me to break open a window. I did it. I didn't know whether I was going to get sucked out of the office and dropped 30 floors, but I did it.

There's a command structure, but you also have to think on your feet. You're in a situation where things change in seconds. You have to make decisions almost on instinct--but it has to be an instinct that comes from a rigorous training program and your experience on the job.

I choose to work in what's called a "busy house." Twenty-four hours is a long time if you're not busy. In a busy house, you're likely to respond to 30 calls during a 24-hour shift. There are also houses where you might only get five-to-ten calls in the same 24-hour shift.


If you go back before I became a San Francisco firefighter, people worked 56 hours a week, either a 6:00pm to 8:00am night shift or a 10 hour day shift. San Francisco now has a 48 hour week--we're the only place in the State that does. The work week for most departments west of the Mississippi is 56 hours, with the most common work schedule being 24 hours on duty followed by 48 hours off duty. This gives you round the clock coverage. On the east coast most of the work schedules are 40-42 hours per week with day and night shifts.

When I started firefighting, you had to pay for your own uniforms--two of them. You got one for "dress," and one for everyday work. That took a month's pay.

In the old days, people who were hired had two years past work experience, and had to have lived in San Francisco for five years. A lot of people came in from the building trades where they already had experience with tools and equipment. The other place people were recruited from was the military, which meant they knew how to work in a command structure where you didn't ask questions.

New firefighters are coming into the work from school. They don't have the same kind of past experience. They often don't like to be told what to do, so they don't like the command structure that's necessary to make a unit effective when putting out a fire, especially if it's a big one. There isn't the same feeling of loving to come to work that existed when I first got into firefighting.


The testing process to become a firefighter is a rigorous one. But sometimes a screw-up will slip through. People like this usually transfer to one of the slow houses. Nobody wants to work with them because you can't have the blind trust that is needed when you're putting out a fire.

Training has changed. Now, because people aren't coming in with mechanical ability, there's a lot more training in the equipment--how to use it, maintain it and fix it. The probation period is longer now; it was six months, now it's a year plus three months of training at the fire college.


Now you have closed cabs instead of hanging onto the truck--a very important safety improvement. Also today many of the tools are power tools, such as the "Jaws of Life"--a power tool that can open a car body like you would a can of vegetables.

But the basics of the technology are the same. Water is pumped from a truck or a hydrant into a hose that's carried by firefighters who direct where the water goes. Firefighters enter dangerous situations with an ax to cut open spaces so you can create vents to let the heat and smoke escape in order to avoid a backdraft/explosion.

In a high-rise building a fire brings its own set of challenges. For safety reasons, you have to use the stairs to get to the fire (elevator failure could trap the firefighters). Water supply and ventilation are additional challenges. The distance water has to travel couldn't have been imagined one hundred years ago.


Fire departments now have emergency relief service teams that work out of the same houses as the firefighters. There are differences in scheduling, training and what you do on the job. There are two cultures working together: paramedics and firefighters. We're both in the same budget, so there's conflict over allocation of funds. We're in different unions, so solving these conflicts requires negotiations between two separate organizations. This has been a bigger source of tension than women and racial minorities coming to work in firefighting.


For the past twenty five years at least, there's been an attack on public service. The claim is made that if public services were contracted out to the private sector they would be less expensive, more efficient and more responsive to the communities that are served. The theory is that competition would work with public services the way it's supposed to work (never mind whether it really does or not) in the private sector. The fact is that contract out doesn't work. Our union did a study on privatizing fire departments. Here are some of the things we found.

Contract out often means patronage for politicians. The bidder who gets the work is the one closest to the mayor, city manager or other important politicians, not the one most effective, efficient, community-minded or fair to its employees.

In some communities, a private contractor submits a low-bid to eliminate the public district. The government disbands its department--laying off employees and selling off equipment and buildings. The private contractor cements its relationship with the local politicians and then its contract price starts going up.

Because of the desire of many young men and women to get into a municipal fire department, they hire on with private providers to gain some firefighting experience to put on resumes when they try to move to a public district. That means high turnover and low experience.

In the worst cases, inadequate private fire departments have cost major property loss due to fires and, even worse, lives.


I've been a union officer of-and-on for about 37 years, most of that time as a local officer. I've taken a break from being an officer and gone back to work in a busy house. When I'm an officer, I spend time in a firehouse every six months. The reason for both of these is to stay in touch with the members. If you don't stay close to the work, you don't know what members are facing so you can't fully understand what they are thinking.

When I first became an officer in Local 798, none of us were paid. We had a team of leaders and we worked together to take care of the business of the union. We paid a secretary to work in the office, but she wasn't a firefighter. This meant we didn't have paid business agents; all of the union officers would do their union business while off duty from the fire department.

In 1994, I became a vice-president for the international. My job as an International Vice President is to advise the leadership in the 250 locals in California, Arizona, Hawaii and New Mexico on contract negotiations and grievances. We have a little over 38,000 members in these four states. With the economic downturn the nation and states are going through, America's first responders are facing truly horrifying challenges.

James T. "Jim" Ferguson is 10th District Vice President of the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF). He's been a firefighter for almost 40 years. During that period, for 27 years he served in various capacities as an official in San Francisco Firefighters Local 798. In 1994, he was elected to the fulltime position of International Vice-President, and is responsible for California, Arizona, Hawaii and New Mexico.
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Title Annotation:Labor Movement
Author:Ferguson, James T.
Publication:Social Policy
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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